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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


One of the earliest known American traders in Oklahoma, in his life Alexander McFarland personified early 1800s American expansion and cultural collision. Born in 1764 in Virginia, he served during the Revolutionary War in North Carolina, settled in Kentucky's Cumberland district, and moved to Missouri and then to Arkansas, always on the frontier's fringe.

McFarland's life in Kentucky was complicated. He arrived in 1791. With escalating violence between Kentucky settlers and the Cherokee, Creek, and Shawnee, he became a military scout and then an officer in the Cornstalk Militia (Kentucky's own minutemen) serving from 1793 to 1801. He also worked as a surveyor, as land speculator, and as a bounty hunter with his brothers. In the summer of 1799 Kentucky's Gov. James Garrard retained him to hunt down the notorious Harpe brothers, a psychopathic pair regarded as America's first serial killers. McFarland also served as Cumberland County's justice of the peace until moving to Missouri in 1803 after the Louisiana Purchase.

Little is known of McFarland's time in Missouri. He settled in southeastern Missouri in the community of New Madrid, along the Mississippi River. He soon recognized the trade opportunities in the Arkansas region. Three years later, in December 1806 Lt. James B. Wilkinson, of the Zebulon M. Pike Expedition, reported meeting a "McFarlane" who was trading and trapping along the Poteau River, near current day Fort Smith, Arkansas. Independent, unlicensed traders like McFarland were direct competitors with the federal government's factory system and its licensed traders, undermining government goals to regulate trade. The closest government factory was Arkansas Post (1805–10) in southeastern Arkansas. Government command of trade among the Osage, Quapaw, and Cherokee influenced traders like McFarland to venture further west to tribes like the Caddo, Wichita, and Taovaya.

In 1808 McFarland organized a party of squatters and speculators to create the frontier community of Cadron Bayou (today's Cadron, Arkansas). Thirty-eight miles above Little Rock on the Arkansas River, Cadron was established for trading with western tribes and speculating in community building (intended to displace Little Rock's power on the Arkansas River). Explorer Thomas Nuttall considered this an unsound venture. Located well within Osage country, the community was at risk from the Osage, who opposed intrusion into their world and had violently contested trade with other tribes for generations prior. Despite the danger, profits were too enticing, and backed by Cadron partners and Cherokee leaders, McFarland led a trading party in the summer of 1812 into southeastern Oklahoma along the Red River to the Wichita and Taovaya. Though the traders tried to avoid discovery, Osage warriors found their camp on August 12. His presence was considered unauthorized, and the Osage meted out their form of justice to McFarland's crime. They put his eyes, goaded him with sharp sticks, tomahawked him to death, and took all the trade goods. Such violence was not uncommon to the Osage. McFarland's widow, Lydia, filed a claim with the United States government in 1813 for the loss of her husband's property; the case was resolved only in 1826.

S. Matthew DeSpain


Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

Grant Foreman, Pioneer Days in the Early Southwest (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, 1926).

Wayne Morris, "The Oklahoma Fur Trade, 1796–1845," M.A. thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1967.

Margaret S. Ross, "Cadron: An Early Town that Failed," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 16 (Spring 1957).

Clarence E. Carter, ed. and comp., Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 20, Arkansas Territory, 1825–1829 (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1954).

Chester Raymond Young, ed., Westward into Kentucky: The Narrative of Daniel Trabue (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2004).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
S. Matthew DeSpain, “McFarland, Alexander,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=MC043.

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